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AMANDA MUGGLETON IN MASTER CLASS | Callas by name, not by nature

  • Amanda Muggleton as Maria Callas.

  • Maria Callas

    Maria Callas

  • Amanda Muggleton as Maria Callas. Picture: Kate Ferguson

    Amanda Muggleton as Maria Callas. Picture: Kate Ferguson

  • Amanda Muggleton as Maria Callas. Picture: Kate Ferguson

    Amanda Muggleton as Maria Callas. Picture: Kate Ferguson

  • Amanda Muggleton as Maria Callas. Picture: Kate Ferguson

    Amanda Muggleton as Maria Callas. Picture: Kate Ferguson

  • Amanda Muggleton as Maria Callas. Picture: Kate Ferguson

    Amanda Muggleton as Maria Callas. Picture: Kate Ferguson

Wonderful Amanda Muggleton wants to make it clear she waited 20 years to reprise her role as Maria Callas in Master Class. She has not been doing the role for the last 20 years. Thats an unfortunate misconception which owes its genesis to a journalist getting the one word wrong in a story. She corrects the record here, and also explains why Callas is often wrongly referred to as a monster, even though Callas seemed to try hard to project that very image. Not so, says Amanda. Theres so much more to her . . .

We've heard a lot about Maria Callas and it's not insignificant that she was hard to get on with. Callas by name, callous by nature perhaps, do you think? Is she a demon diva who takes no prisoners? Or is there something more to her?

That description of her couldn't be further from the truth. We're talking about a very, very vulnerable woman who was demonised over her very short career by her mother and her sister when she was young, She was very overweight and had bad skin and very bad eyesight which of course went with her through the whole of her life.

Her mother never complimented her, even when she was at the top of the game, the mother would always say "not good enough" and "lose the weight, you look terrible" so it's no wonder she ended up being incredibly vulnerable.

I think people mistake the diva, the prima donna, the tigress as she was called, for someone so insecure. Very insecure people attack because they don't know how else to survive. She was attacked from a very young age by her mother. She loved her father but her mother took her and her sister away from him in New York back to Greece and she hardly saw him again.

The sister was very skinny and very beautiful and could also sing. Ironically, her name was Jackie and, as you know, Aristotle Onassis ended up marrying Jackie Kennedy instead of Callas. She was with Onassis for 17 years, They never stopped seeing each other, even when he married Jackie Kennedy.

Jackie Kennedy didn't want him! She wanted his protection and his money but Callas really did love Onassis and Onassis really loved her but he needed to raise his status.

It's the most tragic story, not only the love story but also the career that should have gone on like our own Joan Sutherland's. But people abused Callas, people like Onassis used her. All the theatre managers of the day from Covent Garden to the Metropolitan to Vienna, Paris. All their houses demanded she come and sing for them.

Her then-husband, Battista Meneghini, was her manager which was very very silly of her. He was a wealthy man but he just wanted more and more money, more and more notoriety, and never fought for Maria Callas's voice — and what a delicate instrument a voice is!

He said "yes, she can do that" and "yes, she'll be in Paris tomorrow" and "at the end of the week she'll be in New York" and "yes, she can sing Mozart one day” and “yes, she'll singh Wagner the next". You can't do that to a voice. In our show we have three singers and if they've got the slightest hesitation they won't do it. But Callas never had that choice.

Callas, just off-stage after Madame Butterfly.

Callas, just off-stage after Madame Butterfly.

There's that wonderful photo of her where she's just played Madame Butterfly so she's got very pale make-up, very red lips and wild Japanese eyes and she's taken off her Japanese wig so her magnificent long hair is all out and somebody gives her a subpoena – I think it was because shed let down the Metropolitan Opera company.

It's so set up. They deliberately had a photographer ready to capture her as this horrible man gives her the subpoena. She's obviously saying "how dare you!" and of course her teeth and lipstick, which is red but looks black in the black-and-white photo, she looks so ferocious.

And there are all the stories of how she got halfway through Norma at La Scala in Italy and the president of Italy was there and she wasn't well. She told them all before she went on she said "I'm not well, I can't do this, you really should cancel" but by now her pedigree was so up there you couldn't get a seat, people were banging at doors and begging and borrowing and stealing tickets to see her and she told them that she wasn't well.

She actually had a cold and she sang the first act and then realised she couldnt go on but what do we hear? "Callas storms out!" and "Callas only does Act I"

Then in London when she was playing Tosca, and there's a bit about this in Master Class, if they didn't like the way Tosca sang a couple of notes theyd boo and hiss and sometimes throw tomatoes. This was towards the end of her career when her voice was going. She sang the two words "Mario! Mario!" because they're about to kill her lover.

She was so hurt because of what Onassis had done and her voice was definitely on it's way out and she felt her voice wasn't good enough so at the end of the first act she called for her car and, in full costume, got in and never came back.

But people don't understand what was going on behind all that. It wasn't just that they were booing her, the lover she'd had for 17 years had married Jackie Kennedy, her voice was shot to ribbons and she felt she had nothing left.

You know, there are times as a performer you really do have to pull a performance out of you because all sorts of things happen to you in life. It's not like you've only got the show to do. Things happen to you in life you can't stop and you can't help but you still have to get out there and do the show. People are paying money to see you. It's an incredibly cruel business. You do lay yourself open to criticism all the time.

You're painting a picture of someone being very torn. Where on earth did she find personal space where she could withdraw and feel safe, emotionally if not physically?

Well, in the end she becomes a recluse and hides in an apartment in Paris and how they ever got her to come out and do the master classes I will never know. She was getting very very depressed and very low. She had two little dogs she absolutely adored and two servants who lived with her permanently, a housekeeper and a butler who was also her assistant. When she was with Onassis she had an escape on the Christina, his magnificent yacht. He also owned two or three islands in Greece and she could go and hide and rest.

Not that he ever gave her any rest because he wanted to be seen in society and so he used to put her on his arm and, let's face it, he was an ugly little bloke! Some ugly people can also be terribly attractive, especially when they're billionaires! I'm not saying she was with him for that because I do believe she loved him.

Maria Callas.

Maria Callas.

You're describing managerial abuse.

Absolutely. We call it bullying these days.

Another level of abuse, on the level of Harvey Weinstein?

Yes. She was forced to fly here, there and everywhere. Doing one opera one week, another opera the next. You can't do that to a voice but she was so, so famous that yes, everybody wanted her. Her husband was 28 years older than her and nobody was really looking after her. Certainly not her family.

She was a strong personality, why wasn't she able to look after herself a bit better?

In the end she did but then you get called a prima donna and a diva! So when she did try to look after herself they said ohh, she's temperamental, she said she's not going to sing this. For a couple of years she was singing everything that was given to her and people were amazed that her voice could do this but in the end it took its toll and then once she met Onassis he was taking her out to parties here and parties there and they were going into smoke-filled rooms and everybody wanted a piece of her.

Oh, Madame Callas, please come meet my grandmother, please come here, please come there. It was like any opening night they don't realise you've been on stage for two and a half hours using all your voice and I'm talking about actors now, not just singers for whom it's even more strenuous.

Even as an actor you find yourself having to shout above a crowded room and by the time you get home you've actually got no voice left because you're trying to shout above the throng.

What things of value is Callas able to pass on during the course of her master classes?

Oh, my God, everything that comes out of her mouth is a lesson. The first thing she says is you've got to have a look. You think you're all so special, you're a dime a dozen, there are hundreds of you out there, all trying to get a job, all trying to sing. How do you expect people to remember you if you don't have a look? And that was her story. When she was fat and ugly nobody knew her and it wasn't till she met Meneghini, he made her lose weight and got dietitians in and had her massaged every day until she got so skinny she was another Audrey Hepburn who was her idol.

So the first thing she says is "get a look". The next thing she says is “don't use fireworks, just listen to the music". If you really listen to the notes the acting will come but what happens is people tense up and think “oh my God, the cue's coming, the cue's coming, quick now I've got to sing".

She also says wonderful things like "never give anything away, you should be paid for what you do – we give the audience everything and once it's gone that's it, there's no more left where that came from". And that is so true especially with live performance. You do give the audience everything at that precise moment and when it's gone it really is gone, it's not captured on film or TV, it is a magic moment and that's when she says you have to be paid for what you're doing.

The lessons she gives you are endless. Use the expression of the word, good diction, use your own deep feeling. Even though she is so cruel to some of them, all of them really. It's awful when people pick out the cruelty of the piece, in actual fact she's teaching them the best, most honest things of any teacher.

Great plays take a lot out of the actors . . .

Yes, they do.

. . . as well as the audience. Is this show as exhausting as it sounds?

No, because it's incredibly funny. The humour comes from my cruelty to them, which people are calling cruel, but if you actually listen to the lessons she's teaching them you think well, she's bloody right. Everything she's saying is spot on. Oh no, it's not exhausting and the audience laugh themselves silly and they also, if Im doing my job right, you should cry for her in the end because she is so vulnerable, she's completely spontaneous which is where the humour comes from because she doesn't think before she speaks.

She also has a very strange accent because she's Greek but she spent the first 12 years of her life in New York and she spoke French, German and of course Italian because she was with Meneghini and her Italian was beautiful. But she's got so many languages rolling around in her head that she often pulls out the wrong word and that's where the comedy comes from. It is a brilliant piece of theatre.

Between you and me I think we're having trouble selling the show because Master Class, which actually stands for MC, Maria Callas, but master class conjures up that it's going to be a bit posh, are we gonna have a masterclass in singing . . . ? So people think we won't do that. And the word opera puts them off again. So it's a really hard show to sell. Thank God we had such beautiful reviews.

Which have been magnificent. You've been doing this show for some years . . .

No! No! No! No! No! No! No! It takes one journalist to write that I've been doing this show for 20 years and it makes me so mad because I've got no recourse. It's now in the ether, all over Facebook and everywhere online and I can't do anything to change it. And it was started by someone who got one word wrong! What it should have been is that I've been waiting 20 years to reprise this role.

OK, we'll set that straight.

It makes me so cross, Ian. People read that and think oh, she's been doing Maria Callas for 20 years and that makes me feel awful. For a start it dismisses everything I've been doing for the last 20 years. For God's sake, if you're going to put things in print get it right. Thank God, I've known you for all these years and I can talk like this to you! I give everything I've got on stage and it's exhausting, then you read things like that and it's even more exhausting. I'm sorry but I'm really cross about this.

You do give everything, on stage and in interviews. It is your trademark.

Well, thank you! Sorry I'm tired and emotional. I'm so thrilled to have my family here from England and this is their last day which I'm also upset about.

Callas is not an easy character to play and I have to deal with the audience all night because it's totally immersive and I treat the audience as though they're in the Juilliard school so if you misbehave or come in late I have to have a go. It keeps the audience on their toes but they love it, that's where the comedy comes from as well.

You can hear how tired I am. My voice is going, just talking to you.

But what was that question you were leading to . . . ? You started to say Ive been doing this role for some time . . .

And I was getting to the weight of the role on the actor's shoulders . . .

It's huge!

. . . and how vulnerable that must make you feel.

Yes. Of course. I've had a huge career and, you know, I've still got a lot going on but I've had a lot of disappointments, a lot of hurt, and when you're playing a role as tragic as Callas you really empathise with her, I do, and that's why it's so good when I see people crying at the end. When you see someone that proud fall, which she does, it's astonishing when someone's being so awful all night and then somebody takes her down it's heartbreaking.

When you remember Muhammad Ali and how proud he was, and so funny and quick-witted and then you see him with Parkinson's disease and now he's dead, I cried when I saw him with Parkinson's. That magnificent man, good looking, amazing fitness, his wonderful strong body and he's become an old jittery man it breaks your heart.

It's like that with Callas, she's so proud and arrogant but remember behind it all is this vulnerability, what you're seeing is her playing a role because she was so intimidated by everyone, especially at this moment in the '70s – she died four or five years after these classes. She didn't have much time left and they said she died a very very lonely, very sad vulnerable woman.

Did she have a soft heart at the end or was she completely hardened?

Theres a certain story that she took her own life. She sent her little dogs away, which she was never without, so they wouldn't see her dead. Joan Sutherland says she was one of the funniest, most wonderful people to work with. It's like this cricket thing that's going on. People all want to jump on it and say he did this, he did that, they did this. Same with Callas. Joan Sutherland said she was such fun in the wings. Before theyd go on she'd look at Joan and say here we go! And she'd crack some amazing joke so everybody would laugh and you'd go on and the energy would go up.

But you don't read that, you don't hear that side of her. And when you see the show youll see how sensitive she is.

Thank you so much for your time. Now go spend time with your family!

Thank you darling. And if you write that I've been doing this role for 20 years I will personally kill you!

  • Master Class at the Sydney Opera House: website here.
This story AMANDA MUGGLETON IN MASTER CLASS | Callas by name, not by nature first appeared on Fairfield City Champion.

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